You could say the legend of Chanel began in 1883 when the eventual icon of modern fashion was born Gabrielle Chanel in the modest town of Saumur, France. There are also those who consider her brief stint as a cabaret singer, during which time she officially adopted the nickname “Coco,” as the beginning. Still others point to that initial millinery shop at 21 Rue Cambon, the 1921 debut of Chanel No. 5, and the instantaneous success of the designer’s little black dress. Though the true beginning of Coco Chanel’s legacy as a figure is up for debate, there’s no denying the starting point for the famous Chanel ready-to-wear collection. That first debuted in 1978 when the brand was firmly in the hands of its new leader Karl Lagerfeld after Coco’s death. Here are some of the most memorable moments in the evolution of this storied line’s progression to prominence.
The true test of success is whether your sophomore project garners the same thunderous applause as your freshman attempt. It’s how critics and customers separate the one-time wonders from serious contenders. Following measured acclaim after their premiere runway in 1978, Chanel returned with impressive seconds proving this new seasonal collection was serious. Though hard times lay ahead of the brand, their ready-to-wear runway was there to stay.
Though Chanel’s ready-to-wear shows did not live up to the standards set by founder Coco in the early 80s, they continued. Then, in ’84, a new face came on the scene and turned the floundering company back into a fashion powerhouse. That figure was Karl Lagerfeld, a German designer famous for his sharp eye and eccentric personal wardrobe. There were doubts swirling around about whether Lagerfeld was up to the challenge, but with just one runway he had everyone convinced Chanel was back in the game. They’ve never left the big-time since.
Lagerfeld continued to build a strong following throughout the 80s, attracting some of the finest supermodels in the world. His bling-laden outfits and distinctly powerful womenswear aesthetic were setting fashion precedents right and left. There was still more territory to conquer though, and in the 90s the House of Chanel finally began to dabble in more casual attire. They started this additional focus with a bang in ’93, featuring Naomi Campbell decked out in her mermaid beauty best. It was an unforgettable moment for Chanel’s ready-to-wear collection and runway fashion in general.
While Naomi Campbell’s finest moment on the Chanel runway was in 1993, Karl Lagerfeld outdid himself just a year later with the ultimate ‘90s fashion show. Displaying the decadence of a bold new decade, the show was full of iconic tropes like bucket hats, oversized hair clips, and logo-branded bikinis. As the 90s renaissance continues to thrive in 2017, this is a sure-fire means to find some loud vintage inspiration for your contemporary wardrobe.
Designers love to get inventive when it comes to their fashion shows, and with the increasingly noisy influence of social media, spectacular sets and production designs are becoming quite common in runway fashion. That’s what makes this beach-inspired Spring show from Chanel so revolutionary. Even before the dawn of the social media era, Lagerfeld understood the value of a spectacle and crafted on of the best. It was foresight worth remembering.
Never one to sit back and watch things unfold, Lagerfeld faced the fashion world head-on again in ’08. In the middle of a global industry crisis, the famous creative director designed a giant carousel to take over the Grand Palais. This lavish merry-go-round was outfitted with giant quilted bags, pearls, and bows. Combined with his classic tweeds, chains, and denim, it was the perfect Lagerfeld response to those who said fashion was finally faltering.
Chanel dramatically transformed the Grand Palais for many of its ready-to-wear collections in the early 2010s. After the glorious carousel, there was an Indian palace aesthetic complete with a runway bordered by long banquet tables piled high with fruits and candelabras. A year later, the brand embraced another nautical theme and built a set covered in shimmering white sea shapes. However, these elaborate designs cannot compare with Lagerfeld’s most extravagant show, Fall/Winter 2010. For this seasonal collection, he ordered real icebergs from Scandinavia. The Grand Palais had to be kept at 28 Fahrenheit to keep the sculptures from melting.
Last, but not least, there was the supermarket show. Never one for half-baked ideas, Lagerfeld turned the Grand Palais into a functioning grocery store for this ready-to-wear collection. With a maze of shelves featuring everything from double-C-emblazoned sodas to fresh produce, it was a comment on consumerism that completely outdid that original commentary on decadence back in 1994. With so many goodies on the shelves, it’s no wonder the crowd went a little crazy looting the epic store after the show ended.
Chanel’s ready-to-wear collection has quite the reputation. Whether social commentary or focused couture, there’s never a dull moment when these outfits hit the runway. Who knows what mastermind Lagerfeld will come up with next.
— Timothy Vest